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A vision of hope: OT students lead program for older adults with low vision

May 7, 2014

"It's like looking through fog," shares Polly, a resident of New Mercer Commons, part of Columbine Health Systems in Fort Collins. "I can't see clearly, but I really like the new lights the CSU students recommended, they help me concentrate to enjoy my favorite activities."OT student Kelsey Mathias, left, trains Kathleen, a resident of New Mercer Commons, on the Nifty Knitter, an alternative knitting option for people with low vision.

Polly, like many in the New Mercer low vision group, has macular degeneration, an eye condition common in older adults that causes vision impairment. Macular degeneration affects 18% of 65-75 year olds and up to 30% of the population 75 years and older. Low vision refers to a visual impairment not correctable by glasses or contact lenses, and is a common condition caused by aging. With the aging Baby Boomer generation on the horizon, low vision will become an issue for more and more people.

Teaming up with local non-profit

Through the CSU Department of Occupational Therapy's fieldwork component, graduate students Kelsey Mathias and Samantha Clement have teamed up with Ensight Skills Center, a local non-profit that provides vision rehabilitation, to create and implement an educational program for low vision residents at New Mercer. Cori Layton, a low vision specialist from Ensight, provided hands-on learning opportunities, exposed students to Ensight service provision, and aided in designing the low vision groups.

Trained by OT assistant professor, Aaron Eakman, the OT students learned how to complete basic low vision assessments and created three group lessons including how to use magnifiers, improving the quality of light sources, and modifying leisure activities to accommodate low vision.

The group lessons are supplemented with individual consultations, in which the students assess the participant's living quarters to see how they can improve the space for their low vision client.

Gina Digiallonardo, an administrator at New Mercer who oversees the program, appreciates the practical application of the lessons. "The students presented on topics that touched all of my departments, so it was very useful.  We have been able to use some of the suggestions in maintenance and activities.  I think the overall program has made us more aware of ways that we can modify an environment to make it better for a resident with low vision.  I am very pleased with this new awareness."

One especially useful exercise featured mugs from New Mercer's dining services. As contrast plays a huge role in differentiating between different objects, the students showed residents with low vision how to discern if there was liquid in the cup, a practical and safety skill they would need. By putting dark liquids into light-colored mugs, clients could clearly see when their mug was full or empty. Mathias was encouraged by the response of New Mercer to review their dining services to make them more low vision friendly.

Mutually beneficial

The program has been mutually beneficial, as the clients with low vision learn how to modify their lifestyle to enjoy their favorite activities while the students are exposed to an emerging practice area in OT.

"This age group is one I want to focus on when I am an occupational therapist," Mathias explains. "It is so cool that CSU gave me the opportunity to learn about this group through cutting edge practice in a newly emerging field."

Eakman emphasizes that this fieldwork opportunity supports one of the profession's main goals: to promote a positive, active connection to life.

"OT helps people develop the skills they need for completing the daily activities they want and need to do such as typing on the computer," Eakman explains. "With a health issue like low vision, clients can lose their connection to other people and to life. The OT program is about building that connection back up again."

This program is clearly working on building that connection, as was evident in the joy of New Mercer client, Kathleen, who was able to knit for the first time in years through a lesson on using the Nifty Knitter, a round loom which makes it possible to knit without having to see small needles or count stitches.  Outside of leisure activities, OTs can help persons with low vision prevent accidents and injury and can help modify environments to promote a healthy and satisfying life. To see what other contributions OT makes to improving the lives of low vision clients, visit this American Occupational Therapy Association tip sheet.


Anyone with an interest in supporting low vision education, outreach, and research activities in the Department of Occupational Therapy at CSU, should contact Eakman via email.

Contact: Gretchen Gerding
Phone: (970) 491-5182